Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

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Q&A: Robert Lang


Sam Morris

Robert Lang, co-director of Brookings Mountain West, says Las Vegas is unique in that it went from a quarter million in population to 2 million people in a span of 40 years.

Robert Lang is considered one of the best advocates of the Mountain West, especially Southern Nevada.

Lang, 50, is a newcomer to Las Vegas, but a longtime expert on urban affairs dealing with the Intermountain West.

Lang is a professor of sociology at UNLV, director of the Lincy Institute at the university and co-director of Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between UNLV and the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is the Brookings Mountain West director based in Nevada, and Mark Muro is the director based in Washington.

Lang’s goal is to get the voice of the region heard and understood in Washington, so that it will obtain more resources to tackle its problems.

IBLV: What is an expert on urban affairs?

Lang: It is metropolitan affairs at this point.

So what is that?

It is that the physical environment is the guiding principal. It is different from just straight public policy because of the concerns of multiple dimensions of the built environment: housing, real estate, transportation, water, infrastructure and environment. It is like an applied form of geography.

What do you write about in books and journals?

In urban planning, I specialized in Sun Belt cities, especially the western Sun Belt. I wasn’t interested in New York and Chicago and the big cities of the East and Midwest. They didn’t interest me. If you specialize in (Western) cities, it is almost as if you are in a foreign area. They are completely ignored in the East. They don’t know what they look like. There is this disconnect, and they don’t create public policy with them in mind. This city in 1970 had a quarter million people in it, and it is 2 million today. Something that came of age with this style of city-building goes unaccounted for.

Why this fascination with the West?

I had a mentor at Rutgers University in grad school. He was a land-use guy who went to Harvard who said to me in 1989 or 1990 that one of the better niches was understanding Western cities and how misunderstood they were within the literature. That’s what the interest was.

When did you get involved with the Brookings Institution?

In 1996. I was working for Fannie Mae. I was director of metropolitan research.

What does the Brookings Institution do and how is it financed?

It is a think tank that works on public policy questions — everything from foreign policy to public housing. They get endowments. Somebody donates money. They are the oldest think tank going back to 1916. They were the people who came up with the Marshall Plan.

What is its purpose?

It is to generate ideas that government can’t pursue.

What is your role with it?

I am a nonresident senior fellow. It means you are working on projects for them — that you are writing reports. I have published five books and five or six issue papers.

How does that work?

You are academic. You are a college professor, and you affiliate with them. They go with you for outside funding.

Why did they form Brookings Mountain West?

They started it to study metropolitan issues in the Intermountain West. The idea is there are a lot of institutional strengths in the older parts of the Rust Belt. The cities in the Intermountain West are so new in a way that there isn’t that kind of institutional completeness. There is a gap in information and part of the policy discussion in Washington. They have demands. There is very fast growth and challenging public policies. In a way, they are a new American heartland. It often goes unrecognized. The suburban Sun Belt setting is one of the more ubiquitous, recently built, well-favored and well-liked parts of the American landscape, yet it requires huge public investment in water and infrastructure and things like that. These states are not receiving a lot of the resources from the federal government.

What do you mean?

If you came of age as a city in the 1950s and you were big enough to reach a scale that you needed beltways and things like that, the federal government picked up the vast share of it. There is a little bit of this money in the beltway here. It is not completely absent. But it is nowhere near what Minneapolis got when it was building its interstate. (Western cities) grew up too late. They grew up when the federal government decided to get out of the business of city-making. That is part of the challenge that these places bear. Last to the pot — but they face big challenges because they are playing catch-up on population growth. As part of their revenue stream, they charge impact fees to newcomers and it lifted the price of doing business in the region so they borrowed against the future. This all had to be done fast, and you couldn’t wait for Washington’s next program. Some of the fastest-growing places have been basically ignored by the federal government.

What specifically has been hurt?

We were cheated out of a freeway to Phoenix that would help this region. The Southwest will probably be a hub of solar manufacturing, energy generation and export. And collectively, it will compete against China and Europe. Linkage to our partners for goods flows and logistics is important. Amarillo to Lubbock got an interstate of approximate length to one we will get.

Why did Nevada lose out on an interstate?

It was under 50,000 in the region in the 1950 Census. My criticism would be to adjust even if you have a whole different urban metropolitan system emerge late in the project. By even 1960 or 1970, you could see there was justification for the project. The interstate was still ongoing. It was just a failure by this region to fill out its transportation network.

Why is it that vital?

If you look at economic development surveys and when they talk to firms and what is important to them, they go on and on about transportation. This is a well-understood relationship. Look at the Transcontinental Railroad. It is a great moment to fix something like that. It will add future productivity to the region in terms of reducing bottlenecks. It is something to do when you have a lot of construction unemployment.

What is going to happen?

We are going to get it. A big section of it already exists. We built the bridge over the Colorado (River), and there are approach roads on both sides.


It will go in the next transportation authorization bill. They are going to list priority projects, and it is an easy case for priority projects. It is the two largest cities in the United States not connected. You have to keep pounding away at this.

When would the interstate get built?

It would start in 2011, 2012 and take until the middle of the decade. The right of way is there and most of the road is there. It would be important not just for passengers, but it is the designated (Canada to Mexico highway). You will get a spillover port in Mexico that deflects some of the capacity out of Long Beach, and that will come up through Sonora, Mexico, into Arizona and transshipped from Arizona onto Nevada.

Is it the No. 1 priority in Washington for this region?

Yes, and the loan we will likely get for the high-speed rail, the DesertXPress. It will get a loan it has to pay back over 35 years.

Will the rail line ever go through the Cajon Pass into the east side of Los Angeles?

I don’t think any high-speed rail will go through the pass. I think instead, it will come through Santa Clarita north of L.A. and connect on the line with San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Will it be successful?

Remember who that train is for — Californians using it for Las Vegas. There are 15,000 parking spaces in Victorville, and they are free. A lot of folks don’t want their cars here. We have the most sophisticated cab system of any airport in the United States. We don’t have as many people renting cars as Phoenix. You are going to go to the Strip.

You think people would prefer that to driving?

On the weekend, it is the most bottlenecked interstate in the country. It is an 80-minute trip at about 150 mph and it costs $50 each way. It leaves every 20 minutes and carries 700 passengers. There is also a giant rental car facility on the other side for Nevadans.

When would it be built?

It would begin later this year and it would be completed in 2015.

Is Brookings a big advocate of this?

It is the idea that this region deserves.

What kind of effect will this have on Las Vegas?

It will have a huge impact. It will create 50,000 jobs, 25,000 that are likely to be on this side for the construction of a train station here. And it would induce future travel to the city. Some part of L.A. travel is surely frustrated by traffic to Las Vegas.

What is the viability of the maglev rail system that’s a competitor?

I don’t want to get into that debate. What is viable is whoever gets it in the ground first. I am not throwing my support behind anything.

What is the Lincy Institute?

It is a bookend to Brookings, and it is intended to address specifically Southern Nevadan needs on health, human service and education. It is part of the same ethos. There has been a lack of capacity in this region to reach for both state and federal resources — in this case to fix education, to do education reform and to sufficiently fund health care in this region, to get more of the medical services in the state down here. That is its focus. It is knowledge-based philanthropy. Its mission is not to give money to people but to become partners in joint ventures that get research money into the city, that get funding for working on social problems. We will probably hire somebody in D.C. to write grants for us.

What have you done to date?

What we have accomplished so far is we are about to hire everybody. The Brookings side is producing already, and we are about to ramp up a bunch of research projects. The Lincy side is staffing up completely and by July 1 is the hire date for all these people. There will be 15 people. Brookings has three.

Where does the funding for all this come from?

Kirk Kerkorian. It was a coordinated effort between the university and Brookings and Lincy. It was a marriage made by these different parties. The university was instrumental in understanding what Lincy could be.

What is the annual budget?

We were given $14 million (for Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute). It is budgeted for several years. The idea is that we would become self-sustaining because we bring money in through writing grants. There is lot left at the table in D.C., especially when it comes to this state.

Why was UNLV chosen?

UNLV was the most serious about the engagement. It found money and coordinated this effort and offered the best support. This couldn’t be coordinated at Arizona State University. I know it wanted it, but it couldn’t get it together. UNLV won the race.

What have you learned about Las Vegas since you moved here?

Anytime you live some place, you pick up on the subtleties of it. You pick up insights you would never get unless you lived there. What I am struck by is the pace. I know the local media are full with these accounts, but as a person who has driven (all over the country), there is a little bit more courtesy here, believe it or not. I know that seems hard to believe. You expect that in Salt Lake City. I am not benchmarking against the Midwest, but I am talking about Boston and New York and Washington.

What else?

On a more important level, it looks to me at this point, there appears to be a golden opportunity with the leadership in this city seeking to actually look for an alternative way to go forward — to figure a way that is more resilient to change and downturns in the economy. We are at a point where Las Vegas is about to switch from a one-dimensional to a multidimensional world city. No one could have ever imagined you could have gotten a world city out of an industry like gaming, but that is how worldwide it became. They are now exporting this around the world, to China for example. As a result, this city is to gaming what Houston is to energy. Energy wound up in Houston because there were oil fields in the Gulf, but even as those resources dwindled in relative terms to what we find in the rest of the world. Houston maintained a lead in the actual knowledge about that industry — how to find the resources and how to finance it and even how to put out an oil fire.

What about this city?

Las Vegas has this key industry, and it was able to get the region to a couple of million people. Going forward, everything shouldn’t be reliant on it. The industry also spun off an alternative industry in conventions. Conventions can give you increasingly permanent advantage if they reach enough scale. We are going to get the Consumer Electronics Show permanently housed in the city. We also have promising companies like Switch Communications. And if we can get Yucca Mountain remade into a national data storage facility, this would bring a lot of high-tech people to this region.

What is Switch and why is it so promising?

It is a data storage and Internet service provider. It is here and up and running and has customers like Disney and Fox. If it gets … large enough, it will produce spinoff companies. Las Vegas has a tech firm that is out in front of anything else when it comes to data storage and retrieval and should be out front for the next generation of supercomputers. That means you can attract industries that require heavy computing use.

What about Yucca?

It is perfect underground storage for all the vital records of banks and insurance and government records, which our entire economy is based upon. Right now, the information is in a series of secure barns. It could produce a bunch of technicians managing the storage.

Is this a new concept and what are the chances of that happening?

It has been pitched to Sen. (Harry) Reid. It will be a difficult road. If we get a cyberattack, our chances are good.

Will this city diversify even more?

The city is pretty poised in a few key sectors. It will do well in alternative energy because of its proximity to harvesting areas, especially solar. I think we will diversify rapidly. Ironically, one of the most interesting findings is the economy was diversifying even as the share of the region that was directly tied to gaming and tourism was contracting during a tourist boom.

You have said this is an important state for face-to-face exchanges. Why is that?

People meet and do deals. When they survey companies and ask them why they take valuable resources and time and staff time and send them to it, they wouldn’t do it if it were just a junket. There is no way American business would party on that level. It is that they are getting something out of it. The something they are getting out of it is the amount of networking at those events is of marketable value. The city has been getting smart in figuring out ways to get basically a permanent world’s fair — a permanent trade show presence. The association people will have with Las Vegas is that if you want to see the latest cell phone, go to Las Vegas. If you want to see the latest television, go to Las Vegas and not just at the Consumer Electronics Show.

But can’t people do deals over the phone?

It would seem like you can replace everything with a phone call. No you can’t. You are going to have to trust somebody, and you can’t trust somebody by calling them. You need to go out and spend the night with them and get drunk with them and have some fun. Then, you will be forever able to associate who they are and evaluate who you are dealing with on the other side.

So Las Vegas is a center where deals get done?

We don’t know the actual number. It is not like it’s recorded on the Board of Trade. That is the thing that irritates me — the stigma like we recently saw with the Obama administration. If you think Las Vegas is a junket city, you know nothing of junkets. It is work hard and play hard in this city. The convention bureau guys can tell you that if you come to this city, this is the longest you will spend on a trade-show floor and then you go out at night and have some fun.

Junket cities are like Santa Barbara and Pebble Beach. You go on a golf outing and you might do an hour’s worth of business in three days. That is not what happens in Las Vegas. Somehow a business trip here is conflated in the minds of people in Washington with the movie, “The Hangover.” How long do you think you will keep your job if you had “The Hangover” weekend when you were sent to drum up business in Las Vegas? Part of that is we are not telling that story. You know what, this is really a hardworking city. It is a hustling city. We should come up with a metric that says this many deals are going down.

Does the mantra of “What happens here, stays here” hurt Las Vegas?

You need to keep that. I don’t think it hurts, but I think we need something as robust to capture the other dimension. I wouldn’t trade “what happens” for all the money in the world because it is easily one of the most recognizable campaigns ever. You would never say that hurts. What it means is when you are that good on that side, you better get good on the other side and not have it totally overwhelm the other side.

What is harming this region?

The No. 1 force holding us back, plain and simple, is education. UNLV is a one-horse town, and it has to do everything and is not well-supported by the state. We get half of what they get up in Reno per head.

How is education holding the region back?

It is human capital. We have been able to live by the kindness of strangers who move here. Ultimately, you have to produce an indigenous supply of talented people.

If you could hit the reset button for Las Vegas, what would you do?

I would make it the state capital. I would also lobby more effectively for the infrastructure that is necessary. The city’s development is a miracle. Even in the late 1970s, no one saw it coming. It had a quarter-million residents. It happened in a way and pace so remarkable. It is easy to second-guess things now.

What else needs to be done?

One of the things going forward is that we need to explain Las Vegas to the world to create greater legitimacy as to its existence so there is not a constant assertion that it has no right to resources (such as water) when in fact it does. There is sort of this bush-league charge against it that is especially annoying to me. You get that from social critics that pronounce it unsustainable. It couldn’t be that unsustainable or it wouldn’t be here. The city has a legitimate right to exist and doesn’t need people from the federal government lecturing it about its industry and doesn’t need to be lectured by out-of-state environmentalists about whether it is sustainable when it is using less water per capita than Phoenix. No one has cut off Los Angeles from its supply of water and no one has cut off Phoenix from its supply of water. Why are we not entitled to it? There are interests that would deny us access to water that we bought in the northern part of the state. If you reduce that, that means we are totally reliant on the Colorado River and we have no other capacity. All of the other regions around here have multiple sources of water.

How will Vegas look 20 years from now?

It is going to be a bigger scale but not bigger by the scale it has been growing. It will grow, but it will grow slower. It will be more sustainable. It will use fewer resources per capita and generate more of a gross domestic product out of that. It will be more diversified economically. It will have more hotel rooms, but not dramatically more hotel rooms than it has today. That growth will reach a threshold and sustained at a high level. It will have greater transportation capacity and greater alternative sources of water than the Colorado River, and it will use that water smartly.

Will the region be able to encroach on federal lands for its future growth?

We will have to go into another round in 20 years. It will still take awhile to get through the remaining (federal) disposal area.

What effect has the federal disposal area had on Las Vegas development?

This is a constraint on the city for that reason. You are up against federal land holdings. It has produced much greater density and the density has produced much smaller lots and the lots have produced much less lot water use. It has produced much lower greenhouse gases than comparable cities of its size. We are far, far greener than Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville. They are energy-hogging water consuming greenhouse gas-belching messes, flat out, and I will say it. We aren’t anything like that. We are more sustainable. We are on our way to being one of the greener communities in the United States.

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